Feb 05, 2023
Feb 05, 2023
Transmigration of Soul
Continued from Part LXIV
When it comes to the metaphysical science and spiritualty, the most enigmatic question that constantly haunts the human mind is as to what really happens after the death of the person. This and many allied questions have equally baffled philosophers, scientists and common people for ages. Most of us have experienced the radical change brought by the death in the body of the human being at one time or other in our surroundings. Within no time, the very person loses consciousness, memory, experiences and above all the personality that represented him all along the life. Scientists and rationalists hold that the death is the end of journey of a living being whereby everything ceases to exist. On the other hand, philosophers and scholars dealing with the Spirituality and Metaphysics believe that a lot is still left beyond the demise of the mortal body as the subtle or astral body (soul), which continues its infinite journey unperturbed of the event. In other words, the mortal or gross body that came from the dust goes to the dust but the soul remains unchanged from these developments and continues its journey hitherto fore.
Surprisingly, several human civilizations grew, some in total isolation, across the vast geographic and demographic bounds over several thousand years but the death has remained an enigma and mystery among them. Notwithstanding this, they share many common beliefs and doctrines such as the existence of immortal soul or spirit, reincarnation, resurrection, heaven and hell, and so on, in almost all cultures and religions in the world. Even more mystifying is as to why and how such notions and beliefs have some sort of universal appeal and acceptance, when the evidence is so foggy and inconclusive. So, what is the immutable and everlasting truth? If the death is finally ending the living being’s journey or anything still remains beyond it! And if there is indeed something left beyond the death, what is it and how does it happen? Such questions have kept haunting the mankind since the time immemorial and any undeniable facts or precise answers are yet to be discovered. The author proposes to discuss some of these enigmatic questions in the context of what Hindus pursue as their logical and rational beliefs based on scriptural knowledge.
Concept of Life after Death in Hinduism and Other Religions
Hinduism is probably the only religion in the world which is fundamentally monotheistic, and even insists on monism, yet due to its diversified cultural attributes, multiple philosophies, allowance of various doctrines to coexist as also its tolerance towards others’ belief systems, it has assumed several characteristics of a polytheistic religion. Other indigenous religions of the Indian subcontinent namely Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are actually offshoots of Hinduism and together they share many live and afterlife beliefs. Like Hinduism, Buddhism too believes in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. Through karma and eventual enlightenment, they hope to escape samsara and achieve nirvana, i.e., the end to suffering. Where and what life one gets, is a result of the past life based on accumulated positive and negative action and the resultant karma (cause and effect). Jainism shares the concept the soul with Hinduism and that after each bodily death, the jiva is reborn into a different body to live another life, until it achieves liberation. Similarly, Sikhism also has a strong belief in reincarnation. According to the teachings of Sikh Gurus, all animals and human beings have soul which goes through different life forms until it is purified to attain unity with God.
All other major world religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism are essentially dogmatic and monotheistic in nature with belief in spirit, resurrection, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, and so on, based on righteous and sinful deeds in some form or the other. Even the Chinese and African traditional religions and other world ethnic religions too have some commonalities so far as their customs, rituals and belief in respect of afterlife following the death is concerned. Most of them too believe in spirit, heaven and hell, liberation and ghosts according to their deeds. Although the terms soul and spirit are often used interchangeably, the two terms in essence represent the Indian and Western concepts of the subtle or astral body. The spirit is a non-corporeal essence of the living being which according to the Western concept still exists after his/her body is dead such as a ghost or an entity without a body. In Hinduism, the soul (Atman) is the Individual Self or Consciousness distinct from the mind and the physical body, which is the real entity without any name, gender, or such other attributes that constantly moves in the karmic cycle till it attains Moksha.
Here it would be relevant to briefly refer to the concepts of the life after death in respect of two major religions of the world, namely Christianity and Islam, which together account for about 54% population of the world. Christianity consists of several denominations of which more prominent and largest ones are Catholics and Protestants; the majority Christians believe in the life after death in the form of resurrection, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, purgatory, and so on so forth. One of Jesus Christ’s most significant miracles recorded in the Bible (Chapter 11 - Gospel of John 1-44) is the resurrection of Lazarus. In Islam too death is not seen as the termination of the human life. Islamic doctrine does have a faith in spirit, resurrection, final judgement, rewards and punishments, paradise and hell as natural consequences of the death of the human body. Islam does not believe in the concept of Karma but it professes that there is direct relation between the conduct of a person on earth and the life beyond with the provision of rewards and punishments commensurate with the earthily conduct.
Hindu Funeral Traditions
Funeral of the dead is carried out through burial or cremation since ages in different communities across the world. Although such traditions vary from country to country and community to community depending upon their socio-religious factors. For instance, Japan has the highest cremation rate in the world which was reportedly as high as 99.97% in 2014. Also, the global trend suggests that the countries and communities are increasingly opting for the cremation as preferred mode compared to burial during the recent decades. Broadly speaking, almost all adherents of Hinduism, Buddhism Sikhism and Jainism cremate their dead, thereby making India as the country among the highest number and rate of cremation, though in case of sanyasins, children and certain other contingencies burial is also resorted to. On the other hands, Christians, Muslims and some others usually prefer to bury their dead due to their religious beliefs of resurrection or/and final judgment..
The process of cremation involves burning of the dead body in wooden logs. As per traditional belief, the fire plays a duel role of consuming the gross body and acting as facilitator/messenger for the onward journey of the astral body (soul). By consuming the dead body, the fire returns it to the dust (Panch-tatva) from where it came from and the soul is freed to move to its next destination. The practice of funeral rites through cremation among Hindus serve duel purposes of enabling soul's smooth transmigration and/or habitation in the other world and also helps family members of the dead to get rid of impurities and uncleanliness incurred following their association with the person died. It’s so because as per traditional Hindu beliefs, the near and dear ones of the member died become unclean, remain isolated and are expected to observe distancing from the society till they are purified through prescribed rituals. Ordinarily, all people who come to see the dead body or offer shoulder to carry the corpse to the funeral ground fall in this category.
When a person dies, if there is no compelling reason to wait for one or two days, the body is mostly cremated on the same day before the sunset. In the process, his mortal remains are given a final bath with head and beard shaven, usually in the house itself or near the funeral pyre in other cases. He (or she) is then placed on a wooden stretcher usually comprised of bamboo sticks with body wrapped in kafan (shroud) and carried by kith and kin accompanied among the chants of God’s name (say “Ram naam satya hai”) to the personal or community cremation ground. There, the body is laid on the funeral pyre in a fashion that his feet point towards the south and head towards north. According to Hindu belief, the south is the direction of Yama, the god of death, while north is dedicated to Kubera, the god of wealth; for this very reason, majority Hindus avoid sleeping in this posture during the lifetime. A family or community priest facilitates all associated rituals and the funeral pyre is lit, ordinarily, by the eldest son (husband in case deceased is wife), with a sacred fire created for the purpose. A variety of materials including wood logs, dried cow dung, ghee and some other materials are liberally used in the cremation.
The ashes are collected into urns and discharged / scattered at holy rivers and places from third to tenth day after cremation. This symbolizes the return of body elements to the earth, water and air. After the funeral, the grieving son and/or other family members continue ceremonial offerings of rice balls (pindas) for ten days which as per traditional belief help the departed soul to construct a body (annamaya-kosa) for its existence in the world of the ancestors. On tenth day, the chief mourner and the priest carry out the religious rites and rituals of the Shraddha that include pinda dana, alms and gifts to eligible people for peace of the departed soul and shuddhi (cleansing) of family members to restore their normal social life. During these rituals, a trench is dug symbolizing legendary Vaitarni river and boat, God Vishnu is invoked with ten balls of rice and ingredients like honey, curd, ghee, sesame seeds, sugar and milk , etc., are used in associated rituals. In some parts, particularly south India, a practice is followed whereby the rice balls are offered to the crows near the cremation ground to ascertain if the soul is contented or not with the rites performed. If the crows pick up the rice balls, it is an affirmative confirmation of the soul being happy with the offerings and rituals. Finally, a function is organized usually on the thirteenth day after cremation in which pedigree members and other guests are invited for a peace meal.
Hinduism: Doctrine of Reincarnation
As the oldest civilizational culture and religion, the Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion that has origin in monotheism yet it traversed through panentheism, pantheism, monism, polytheism and atheism during the vast expanse of time due to its inherent attributes of tolerance and allowing reasoning, debate and dissent. Unlike other monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam that revolve around the holy bible and Quran, Hinduism is equipped with vast and rich treasure of knowledge in various disciplines the form of Vedas (4), Upanishads (over 200 with 10 Principals), Bhagavad Gita, and many Shashtras, Puranas and Epics. As Hinduism allowed different school of philosophies to evolve and prosper, it has multiple doctrines on metaphysical science and spirituality, including the aspects of the life after death. Among these scriptures, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is most popular and used as an authenticated source of spiritual knowledge about Brahman (God), Atman (soul), and its course on astral plane.
During the Vedic age, people believed in the existence of two more worlds apart from the physically visible world, which were the world of ancestors and the world of gods. They called these worlds as bhur (earth), bhuva (moon) and svar (the sun) which occupy the lower, the middle and the higher realms of the universe. According to their belief, the gods attained the highest world of svar and men too could attain their world through worship and sacrifial rituals. They also conceptualized that the gods represented all life forces as well as renewal of life while the opposite demonic entities symboloized the forces of death and destruction. Notwithstanding these concepts, the idea or belief in rebirth of human beings was alien to the early Vedic men. In the Rigveda, the oldest and most revered scripture, the rebirth or reincarnation finds no mention. Yet they were aware of the concept of Brahman and Atman, and according to their belief, after the soul departed from the Bhuloka (earth), it reached either in the world of ancestors or that of the gods. Then their fate was decided in the higher worlds depending upon the merit achieved through the sacrifices while still alive and living in the Bhuloka.
The Vedic tradition of offering sacrifices to one's ancestors following their death was supported with the belief that the departed ancestor would either stay in the ancestral world or ascend to the world of gods (heaven) through merit of the sacrifices made by the descendants and make sure that he (or she) would not return to Bhur realm again. An elementary concept of reincarnation could, however, be ascribed to some writings in early Upanishads suggesting that the father lives through his son as the physical body might perish but the Self (Atman) doesn’t. The Vedic people had a notion that the eldest son is the natural inheritor of the knowledge and energy of the father. According to Hindu chronology, the Vedic period is of at least ten thousand and above vintage while such knowledge was delivered with abundant clarity in Srimad Bhagavad Gita by Shree Krishna during the Mahabharata period (over 5000 years ago).
The concepts of Brahman, Atman, Karma and reincarnation have been already explained at length in Part XIV and XV of this series yet for the sake of clarity and continuity, the attributes of soul (Atman) and the concept of reincarnation is briefly reproduced here again. In Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2, Verses 17 to 22, the nature and course of the unborn, eternal, imperishable, everlasting and primeval soul has been explained in a masterly and mesmerising way. The soul’s quest for new life is reflected in the following verse.
Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
Navani grhnati naro 'parani
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany
Anyani samyati navani dehi
(As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.) (BG: Chapter 2, Verse 22)
The Hindu scriptures hold the soul as an indestructible and immortal subtle entity. Shree Krishna reiterated these attributes of the soul in the following verse and also that it moves from one perishable body to another in its Karmic cycle.
Nainam chhindanti shastrani nainam dahati pavakah,
Na chainam kledayantyapo na shoshayati marutah.
(Weapons cannot shred the soul, nor can fire burn it. Water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it) (BG: Chapter 2, Verse 23)
The rebirth or reincarnation in Hinduism is a product of the living being’s cumulative karma in the present and previous lives. The soul is part of jiva, the physical being that is subject to the impurities of attachment, delusion and laws of karma. Consequently, the death is not an end but a natural process of continuance of the jiva as a separate entity. The good and bad deeds ultimately return in the form of reward or punishment and it is the overlying necessity of the reaping of Karma that compels person to repeat in the cycle of rebirth in successive lifetimes. Those who had Karma of the highest order in material life shall be able to skip the cycle of life-death-rebirth to attain moksha and ones who had a mix of good and bad Karma with kind and sinful deeds to credit shall enter into the cycle time and again. Some others who die unnatural death (Akal-mrityu) through the suicide, murder or accident, may also roam around for certain period possibly as ghosts and spirits.
While the doctrine of heaven and hell does exist in Hinduism, its form and connotation vary in concepts. After the merit of their good Karma and/or the demerit of their bad Karma is exhausted, they have to leave heaven or hell, as the case may be, to be born into the Earth realm again. While the scholars and philosophers keep debating about the location and modus operandi of the heaven and hell for the temporary reward and punishment before reentering into the karma cycle, the overwhelming belief is that a person (jiva) experiences it in the same samsaric life. For illustration, if a person was very generous in a lifetime, he may be reborn as a wealthy person in the next incarnation or if he had done evil deeds in previous life, he may reborn to live a poor and miserable life. Moksha is the eventual occurrence or supreme goal that liberates one from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, whereby the individual soul is believed to merge with or get absorbed in the Supreme Soul (Brahman).
Soul Journey and Transmigration
According to Hindu scriptures, the fate and afterlife of the subtle body (Jiva) in case of a dying person is determined on several factors, which are briefly illustrated below:
Om ityekaksharam brahma vyaharan mmm anusmaran,
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim.
One who departs from the body while remembering me, the Supreme Personality, and chanting the syllable Om,
will attain the supreme goal) (BG: Chapter 8, Verse 13)
A lot has been written on the life, death and subsequent possibilities of human life but what really happens following the death largely remains a subject of conjecture by some people, and logical and rational narratives as found in scriptures created by our ancient rishis. Besides, there are narratives and stories from the people who had near death experience or who allegedly returned to life following their death. The basic difference between the live and dead body is that the consciousness pervades the entire living body. Vedic Hindu scriptures provided this and Shree Krishna enlightened us unambiguously about the soul as the very basis of this consciousness, which pervades the whole body through all ages.
Avinasi tu tad viddhi yena sarvam idam tatam,
Vinasam avyayasyasya na kascit kartum arhati.
(That which pervades the entire body, know it to be indestructible. No one can cause the destruction of the imperishable soul.) (BG: Chapter 2, Verse 17)
In ancient scriptures, the soul is mentioned as the Jiva or Atman which while bound by a physical body remains in impure state. This embodied soul pervades the body from the birth to death and continues its migration from one body to another, including even lower forms such as animals, insects and plants depending upon the state of consciousness at the time of death. This state of soul is explained by Shree Krishna in the following verse.
Dehino ’smin yatha dehe kaumaram yauvanam jara,
Tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati.
(Just as the embodied soul continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this.) (BG: Chapter 2, Verse 13)
The aforesaid verse explains the continuous transmigration of soul in the gross body from the childhood to youth to old age . The more knowledgeable men who understand the nature and attributes of the soul seldom bereave because they are able to visualise the death as a natural process of the soul behaviour and its transmigration to a new body. Therefore, Shree Krishna described the death as the biggest illusion of the ignorant people and he explained it to Prince Arjuna in the beginning of his discourse on the Bhagavad Gita itself, who was troubled with the notion that he had to kill own grandfather, teacher and kins, whom he respected and loved so much.
According to scriptures, a conscious body is comprised of two broad components: The gross or mortal body which is made by the representation of the earth, water, fire, air and sky (ether); and the subtle or astral body comprised of mind, intellect and false ego with soul as its core complement. This later component is also known as Jiva. While the gross body perishes following the death, the subtle body transmigrate from the old body to the new body. The subtle body with soul as core element carries the mind, intellect and false ego with attributes along. This could be understood from an illustration where the parents have two sons and they try to groom both in a same manner with similar treatment. Notwithstanding this fact, the children grow differently and quite often with opposite attributes, conduct and behaviour. This could be logically explained with the reasoning that many attributes manifested in the gross body are derived from the subtle body.
The death is one of the most significant events in the Karma cycle whereby the subtle body is separated from the gross body and, according to scriptures, starts a new journey through transmigration. The soul accompanied by vital elements like mind, intellect and false ego along with good and bad actions and impressions of the previous existence seeks onward journey, where all these subtle elements possibly serve as the seed for its new abode (body). The Puranas, Upanishads, Yoga Vasishtha and the Bhagavad Gita provide several narratives of the journey and experiences of the soul after it leaves the previous body. Some of the Puranas, particularly Garuda Purana, give a detailed and sensational, and even frightening, description of punishments for the wrongs committed during the life. The author do not wish to mention or deal with these graphic details which is more of a subject of blind belief rather than a narrative based on meticulous logic and rationale.
The Eighth Chapter (Verses 23-28) of the Bhagavad Gita provides fairly reasonable description of the transmigration of soul after the death. According to this, there are two distinct paths that a soul could travel after the death and the Karma determines which path it shall go. The path of the sun which is also considered the path of divine because if the soul finds the bright path of sun, it will never return to mrityulok (cycle of life-death-rebirth) and attain moksha. The other one is the path of moon or the dark ancestors’ path and souls taking this path would return to the same cycle again. Shree Krishna explains it to Prince Arjuna in the following verses as under.
Yatra kale tvanavrittim avrittim chaiva yoginah,
Prayata yanti tam kalam vakshyami bharatarshabha.
Agnir jyotir ahah shuklah shan-masa uttarayaaam,
Tatra prayata gachchhanti brahma brahma-vido janah.
Dhumo ratris tatha krishnah shan-masa dakshinayanam,
Tatra chandramasam jyotir yogi prapya nivartate.
(I shall now describe to you the different paths of passing away from this world, O best of the Bharatas, one of which leads to liberation and the other leads to rebirth. Those who know the Supreme Brahman, and who depart from this world, during the six months of the sun’s northern course, the bright fortnight of the moon, and the bright part of the day, attain the supreme destination. The practitioners of Vedic rituals, who pass away during the six months of the sun’s southern course, the dark fortnight of the moon, the time of smoke, the night, attain the celestial abodes. After enjoying celestial pleasures, they again return to the earth. These two, bright and dark paths, always exist in this world. The way of light leads to liberation and the way of darkness leads to rebirth.) (BG: Chapter 8, Verses 23-25)
According to Srimad Bhagavad Gita, these two paths of the world, the bright and the dark, are eternal and are there since the creation of the universe. The celestial journey through one of them takes the one to the supreme state from which there is no need to return, while the migration through the other path brings back the soul to the mortal world again. Needless to mention, the first one in the path of liberation while the second one is subject to the birth and death again. Shree Krishna says that those who know this secret never come under the delusion again but only an equanimous mind is able to realize this knowledge (Jnan). Arguably, when death comes, all subtle emotions and desires are dissolved in the mind which is a part of the subtle body that is carries to the new body in the same way as the air carries aroma of a flower. One needs to transcend one’s experiences beyond the gross and subtle bodies to realize the Self (soul).
Hindu scriptures have at length dealt with the fate of persons who do not attend Karma based Moksha and, consequently, remain part of the karmic cycle of the life-death-rebirth. This cycle shall be repeated till the attainment of Moksha or liberation of the soul, and the length of the cycle will depend on the deeds that enable the person to attain liberation. In such case, the obvious question that still needs an answer is as to what happens to the soul on the attainment of Moksha. It is believed that the process of liberation involves dissociation of soul from both the gross and subtle bodies. In Hinduism, there are different Vedanta school of thoughts that offer different philosophical solution to this state of soul.
Among various schools of thoughts, the Advaita Vedanta appears to be most popular and credible concept of the soul liberation. Propounded by Adi Shankara, the Advaitins believe in monism i.e., non-duality of soul. According to this concept, the nature and attributes of soul are not different from Brahman (God) and in essence the Atman (soul) is the same as the highest supreme reality Brahman. Accordingly, the soul is subsumed or merged into the Brahman on attaining Moksha. According to this doctrine, the liberation is feasible while still living i.e. Jivan-mukti, and after death i.e. Krama-mukti. Bhishma on the death bed during Mahabharata is often quoted as the one who attained Jivan-mukti.
The other major concepts are Dvaita Vedanta, Vishistadvaita Vedanta and Bhedabheda. Dvaita Vedanta concept is based on the duality of the soul and supreme soul (God Vishnu). According to this concept, soul and God are two distinct realities which exist simultaneously and independently. Moksha in such case is possible only after death based on good Karma in an orderly fashion. Accordingly, Moksha in the ascending order could be Salokya, Samipya, Sarupya and Sayujya defining the proximity of soul with God; the last one is the ultimate, Sayujya, when it is absorbed in Vishnu blissfully. The Vishistadvaita Vedanta is actually a qualified non-dualism suggesting that the soul remains subservient to God with divine attributes on attaining liberation. Bhedabheda is yet another variant of the Vedanta philosophy, which is somewhat similar to Advaita in Brahman-soul relationship but, unlike the latter, it holds the material world too as true and not empirical.
The sum of the substance is that the soul is eternal, unchanged and imperishable but remains entrapped in the world of samsara (i.e. the cycle of life, death and rebirth) by the Law of Karma in time and circumstances. According to ancient Hindu philosophy, only Brahman (God) is the ultimate truth while everything else visible and experienced in this phenomenal world is temporary, transitory and illusory. To keep a balance between the real and empirical realms, the ancient rishis had set four aims of the human life, namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha, with the option that one could pursue all goals or skip some to achieve only the end goal. Agreeably, it is difficult to accurately illustrate or make prediction about the afterlife or fate of the person following the death, even the modern science has not been able to unravel mystery or answer related questions. In a nutshell, it has largely remained a foggy and grey area among all world civilizations and religions, despite the theories and explanations put forth by the scholars and philosophers of various ilk. In that context, the spiritual knowledge imparted by the Hindu scriptures about the Karma, reincarnation, liberation, and so on, appears reasonably credible and worth pursuing.
In the context of the modern science referred to above, it is true that the Biology and its different disciplines including the Evolution and Genetics have been able to unravel the anatomy, physiology and other functions of the human body, yet many thought provoking questions about life still remain unanswered. For instance, there is no unanimity among the scientific community as to when and how the consciousness pervades body or the life begins; similarly, there is also no consensus as to when the physical life ends. Naturally, till a final confirmation or refutation is available, the human beings will continue to seek answers of such questions from the traditional theology and metaphysics. Afterall, scientific studies have been conducted in Indian and Western countries in the past with reported incidents where the persons were supposed to have died of some disease or accident but regained consciousness narrating supranatural experiences, which cannot outrightly be rejected. Notably, this consciousness could be synonymized with the Atman (soul), which the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures illustrate in the context of the gross and subtle bodies, and as the subtle nature of the Jiva which remains invisible and mystifying in transmigration and is survived even without a body.
Image (c) istock.com
More by : Dr. Jaipal Singh